Empirical Hooey

Updated: Dec 28, 2020

I have a small complaint. It has been sulking, sullenly, like the gifted child of an overbearing parent.

It is time to share this complaint. Please forgive any arched tones or clenched rectal postures. I’m an Englishman, which means this sort of thing doesn’t come easily.

We are obsessed by the empirical! By data; the quantifiable and the qualifiable. Everything must be named, valued and compared to other named and valued things, to be valid. It’s become an almost existential demand for evidence that reminds me of manicured fake lawns in cul-de-sacs guarded by stern-faced SUVs. It’s all so soulless and mean spirited and unimaginative.

My complaint is that we have abnegated the spirit - or whatever you want to call it, but you know what I mean - because it cannot be measured and what cannot be measured cannot be accorded a value. Along with the abnegation, there is also disdain and a clumsy, cruel disavowal of responsibility to that which nourishes us. I believe we do this through Fear, via its spiteful nephew, Greed. But then I always think it’s about fear. The above paragraph can be condensed into the worship of a shiny, new, catch-all Deity, ‘Rationality.’ Is this now the misunderstood teenage lovechild of the Enlightenment?

There! It feels good to share.

I will now string together some words to attempt to convey what I hope words will never explain, what can only be felt as true, when thoughts are at rest in the boughs.

I suppose, I ought to occupy a starting position. On a spectrum perhaps. Given that I can barely subtract two moderately sized numbers from one another, it’s fair to say much of my decision making occurs around my gut. I’m more predisposed to heath than lawn. I do not wash fruit and vegetables before cooking them. I detest Puritanism as I do pop music of the 1980’s. In Alan Watts speak, I’m more goo than prickles. I am over to the left, cozying up to instinct and romance, far removed from the thrones on which neatness and reason reign.

In Alan Watts speak, I’m more goo than prickles.

And so? I have nothing against organised religion provided my interlocutor doesn’t attempt to share it with me. That would be like raising politics at a funeral. It’s impolite. I’ve digressed to religion because, before science, this is where we turned for much of our accepted wisdom, for the truth. For many, the truth was what the preacher said. There was little choice and if you were brave enough to consider apostasy, you risked brutal and public execution or at least denunciation as a heretic. You might get away with some torture, or simply banishment. Banishment is one of our deepest and oldest fears. To be banished from within a mammalian group is almost worse than death because it threatens all the fear and suffering you would endure as an outcast. Banishment means facing the world alone. It means a greatly reduced chance of finding a mate. What could be worse than not finding a mate? Perhaps only dying alone, the damnation of solitude.

Before religion we had myth. Myth concerned the heavens, the symbiosis of species and nature’s mysterious workings. It also dabbled in the origin of life and, that murky underlying presence, the Spirit. Myth was enacted ritually, through art and story-telling, around fires with full stomachs. This was before light pollution.

Myth is truth via allegory. Myth is guided wonderment.

The Spirit is the gift of action. It’s what makes things begin and to want to continue. It’s a temporary gift. Among some, before science and religion, the Spirit was part of the trinity of forces that permitted life. The trinity comprised the Spirit, Mother Earth and Father Sky. It is not hard to see the essential relationships folk had with their environment, given its bounty and power to destroy, and why it was at once feared and revered. It’s not hard either to invest immortal power in these vast forces, and to personify them, so that they become Gods. Perhaps the God’s then became myths, and those myths Gods, and so on.

I feel there is something magnificent and timeless about all this. These myths are perpetuated on through time. They structure our paradigms and help elect our leaders. They idealise behaviour. They shape our morality. The importance for me is not that they are in any way factual but that they contain truths and meaning so fleeting they can only be glimpsed in dream and in revery. They are felt.

Despite all this I am fascinated by most scientific advancements. I’m in awe of that part of the mind I was denied access to at birth, but upon whose door I meekly scratch. We have come to understand so much of the what, where, when, how and why. I concede that all that requires measuring and comparing, so coldly and analytically. It’s known that the origins of writing were of quantifying and communicating debts. I understand too we can measure the age of the universe at 13.8 billion years, plus or minus 130,000. Science, a continuum of oops! why?! and therefore…, a curiosity into the not yet known that drives us on.

But it is crumbs of magnificence against the infinite complexity of the birdsong outside the window. Does birdsong need naming or measuring? Does it need capturing and pinning to a board? Does the wingspan need measuring, does it need disembowelling, or can it just be left alone? Perhaps the enquiry of most value is to imagine a world without that song.

I hope I die before consciousness can be pinned to a board. There are things not worth knowing because knowing would spoil them. There is only feeling them.

Like silence. The throb of life beating beneath. Silence and the Great Will, the forgotten Spirit flicking my ear.

Get up! Go again! Reach out to the limits and bring back something worthy and beautiful and tragic!

‘Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp,

Or what's a heaven for? All is silver-grey,

Placid and perfect with my art: the worse!

I know both what I want and what might gain,

And yet how profitless to know…’

- from Andrea del Sarto, by Robert Browning

#robertbrowning #poetry


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